The Design of Everyday Things
by Donald A. Norman

Currency Doubleday, 1988.
ISBN 0-385-26774-6
$21.95 Canadian, $15.95 American

Do you stumble through life pushing PULL doors, turning faucets the wrong way, and losing the connection when you try to transfer a call? After you've read this book, you'll stop blaming yourself and put the blame where it belongs -- on the designers!

The Design of Everyday Things is for anyone who designs anything -- technical manuals, software interfaces, machinery, consumer goods, clothes -- and it is also for anyone who uses the items that are designed (that is, all of us). The purpose of the book is to encourage everyone to look at design, and to see how it corresponds to how people actually use things.

This book is tremendously fun to read. Be honest -- do you know how to put someone on hold? I'll be honest -- I don't! If you do, you are probably in a position where you need to do it a lot, and you probably memorized the sequence with some difficulty initially. Why? Bad memory? Mechanical ineptitude? Nope, bad design.

Telephones used to have Hold buttons that flashed when someone was on hold. That was good design. One button, one function. And immediate feedback -- you could tell when you had successfully put someone on hold. Now the telephone, like too many computer programs, has sacrificed usability in the name of "more functionality."

It is possible to increase features and still have them be usable. The book is full of practical examples of both good and bad design. Norman shows push doors with bars that clearly can only be pushed, light panels whose switches mirror the placement of lights in the room, and control panels where rarely-used controls can be kept out of sight (decreasing complexity) until they are needed.

As another example of good design, the United States has a fire law that forbids a flight of stairs from leading down multiple floors and straight into the basement. In case of fire, people in high-rises had a tendency to flee in panic, down, down, down, and then get trapped. Now the design of the stairs forces them off at the ground floor. If they really want to go into the basement, they must look for where the stairs continue. Though more inconvenient in everyday life, this design saves lives.

In addition to many examples of good and bad design, Norman looks in detail at why people make errors. Errors can be divided into two categories: slips, which occur in automatic behaviour, and mistakes, which occur when we consciously choose the wrong goal. He tells you how to plan for the fact that your users will make both kinds of errors, and how to design to minimize the number they will make and allow them to correct.

I recommend this funny and inspirational book to everyone. In fact, I urge everyone to read it. Let's all be more informed, better consumers. Let's demand better design of everyday things!

- Check out my wordplay page.
- The challenge of innumeracy.
- Read some more book reviews.
- Back to the front gate.

This page maintained by